How Global Warming Is Like Nuclear War

Both are catastrophic and easier to ignore than to prevent.

Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina.


It hasn’t been a great few months for people concerned about global warming. Soon after President Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, the United States was struck by numerous natural disasters that, even if not caused by rising temperatures, are just the sort of events that warming temperatures make more likely. Storms caused havoc from Texas to Florida to Puerto Rico, and fires ravaged Northern California. Meanwhile, Trump declared an end to the “war on coal,” and his administration is gleefully loosening every sort of environmental regulation.

To discuss the state of the planet, I spoke recently with Elizabeth Kolbert, a writer at the New Yorker and the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which looked at the calamitous result of human existence on our environment. When we spoke, the fires in Napa were still raging, and Kolbert was preparing to deliver the Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture on the Fate of the Earth, which can be seen here. This interview has been edited for clarity.

Isaac Chotiner: Do you think that calling extreme weather, like some of the storms we have been seeing, a consequence of climate change is helpful to making the argument about how big a deal climate change is?

Elizabeth Kolbert: If you look at this string of warm days that we’re having in New England, and the wildfires we’re having right now in California, and the severe hurricanes that we just had in the Gulf of Mexico, it’s very difficult to pinpoint them and say “OK, this is a direct result of climate change.” But the long-term averages—and we increasingly have very good data sets on wildfires, on storms, on the first frost and the first frost-free days, and all of these things—tell us a very, very stark story. There’s just no getting around it. The flip side of this is a cold winter and so on, and people will say, “Oh, is this climate change?” as if it’s a joke. I assure you it is not a joke.

How do you think we should approach climate change deniers? There’s one school of thought that says “You know, it’s a free flow of ideas. People should be able to offer their opinion and then in a debate the best ideas will win out.” Another says “Well no. It’s crazy that any major news organization would publish anything even in an op-ed page about climate change denial.”

If you read the Scientist and the Times or science stories in the Washington Post or even in the Wall Street Journal, which has its own politics, about a medical breakthrough or gravity waves or anything where certain norms apply, you don’t [quote] people who say “Oh. I don’t believe that. I didn’t see that.”

I think you have to understand that [climate science] has been purposely construed this way as if it were not a science just like all these other sciences are. It is, and basically we’re talking about pretty simple geophysics here, and we’re talking about science that has actually been understood and is basic for over a hundred years, so we’re not talking about cutting-edge science even. I don’t think that there’s an excuse anymore really for the “he said, she said” when you’re covering climate change.

Now, we can have policy debates. We can have very vigorous debates about what your reaction to this information should be. But the same way we no longer debate “Is there a connection between smoking and lung cancer?” we can no longer debate that there’s a connection between drawing a lot of CO2 into the air and warming the planet. It’s just really beyond debate.

How big a deal is Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord?

Well, that is unfortunately one of these questions that for me to answer in a meaningful way requires several layers. Layer number one is the Paris climate accord was not nearly ambitious enough. Everyone who participated in it agreed to that. It was a very modest first step, and it was an attempt to get all the countries of the world on board, saying basically “We have a problem. We know we need to do something.” It succeeded at that briefly.

Now, Donald Trump comes along, and he says that he’s not going to do the things that the Americans committed to do under Paris. We’re not going to live up to our commitments. So he had really already abandoned the Paris accord very early on. Then he formally says he wants to withdraw from the Paris accord, and how big a deal that will be in terms of whether other countries will follow through their commitments or not remains to be seen.

There’s a certain school of thought that other countries will actually see this as an opportunity because other countries are not debating the science about global warming anymore, and they realize we have this big push into electric cars in China. They realize that the technologies of the future are going to have to be carbon-free technologies. There is just no choice. So they will invent them, and they will presumably reap the benefits from them. Another school of thought is “Well, without the U.S. participation, other countries will also dial back on their commitments, and we won’t really see any progress, at least for the next four years.”

Have you ever seen an administration approach environmental policy, and not just global warming, the way this administration has? It seems well behind Bush 43 and Reagan.

I think the Reagan administration, that was amateur hour compared to these guys. These guys are certainly skating way over the line of ethics and probably skating over the line of legality in terms of not recusing themselves from decisions in which they used to lobby. There’s really, really awful and dangerous stuff going on right now, and the only hope … We are seeing how fragile our system is and how it depends on norms of conduct that this group just doesn’t observe. But we also do have laws, and those really need to be upheld by the courts. The only defense here is going to be the courts, and that is a big question mark hanging over a lot of these decisions, which really won’t be finalized until there’s lengthy, lengthy litigation. So while I think what they’re doing is awful and I think has set us back on many fronts and will have serious on-the-ground ramifications, I also think that that last chapter has not been written yet and won’t be written for years.

What’s your general level of optimism or pessimism about the degree to which global warming can be contained by smart policy and the degree to which the train has left the station, or whatever the metaphor is?

Well, this problem could be contained by smart policy, or I should say could have been contained by smart policy. We have wasted a lot of time already. And we seem intent, certainly in the United States, on wasting the next three and a half years. I do believe that smart policy and very aggressive policy, not tinkering around the margins, but really taking this on the way you take on very, very serious problems, because that is what it is, would have a significant impact. But I am very pessimistic right now.

There was a study from Nature Geoscience recently saying that warming since around 2000 had not been quite as bad as some people feared. Have you seen anything in the last few years that’s made you hope that things might not be as bad as we fear?

No, and I think that study—which was a very complicated study and was sort of designed, or suggested that it would still be possible for us to hold warming to 1.5 degrees in part by recalibrating how much we have already warmed the planet—is a much, much debated study. I’m going to put that to one side right now. And I think if you talk to most climate scientists, they would say “Things are proceeding pretty much exactly as we told you, except they’re actually happening faster.” So for example, what’s happened to the Arctic sea, what’s happening in terms of sea level rise and off Greenland and Antarctica, actually things are happening faster than the models predicted.

Nuclear war has been in the news lately.

I’ve heard, yeah.

Nuclear war is, I think, something akin to climate change, not in just that it causes unimaginable devastation, but that it’s something so horrific that it’s very hard for people to comprehend. Do you think about those two things and the connection between them?

I am delivering the second Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture, and I just reread Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, which was published in the early ’80s, which is a book that I really recommend to everyone, and it’s unfortunately extremely timely right now. It makes exactly the point that you’re making that through some form of self-protection, we just don’t think about these things. We don’t think about “What would it really be like to have a nuclear war?” and we have a president tweeting about nuclear war. Nothing could be more horrific, if you actually think through the consequences, which this book does.

I think that in the case of climate change, the consequences are somewhat less certain. We don’t know exactly what the consequences are going to be in large part because we don’t know how people are going to respond to the changes. Are they going to respond violently? Are they going to respond peacefully? Are we going to become a more cooperative world? Are we going to become a less cooperative world? All those questions remain to be answered, but I think that you’re right that both of those are issues that we would rather not think about, and so we don’t think about it, and the consequences of that non-thought, unfortunately, we are going to feel them in the form of climate change. And we’d better wrap our minds around that.

It reminds me a little bit of Trump’s election, which I’m not yet comparing to nuclear war. But in the sense that it was something that a lot of people underestimated happening, myself included, because it just seemed so grotesque and so awful a possibility that you just kind of couldn’t totally believe it could really happen.

I think watching the rise of Donald Trump, and potentially the end of the American century or whatever you want to call it, should put us in touch with many, many civilizations that thought they were immune to all sorts of disasters and did end in disaster. We know that from the historical record. We seem to have thought that we were immune too, but it seems increasingly clear that we’re not. When we look at how the world got into WWI, and how the world got into WWII, it seems ridiculous to us. It seems, how could that have happened? And yet as we watch right now, we see things happening that are so outrageous and so foolish that they only can bring to mind other world-altering disasters.